If I can just make it to the tree before fainting, then maybe I can get to the plaza and sit for a spell. It's summertime on Durham's Downtown Loop, where the sun bakes the giant griddles known as parking lots and pedestrians like me marinate like ants under a magnifying glass.
Once considered the pinnacle of urban planning, the one-mile Loop is now pointless, both literally and figuratively.
Cleveland & Church Partners, a private development company in Durham, unveiled a proposal last week that would convert the Loop to two-way, including Roxboro and Mangum streets, and encompass parking on both sides of the streets. Actually the Loop would not be a loop at all: It would be squared off to restore the historic Durham street grid.
"A walkable downtown is key to economic success," said Rob Dickson of Cleveland & Church Partners at a recent soiree where the plan was unveiled. "The Loop is in the way. It would be great if it were gone."See the plan entitled Downtown Durham: From Potential to Greatness.
(Although not an official city document, the plan contains input from several departments and downtown business owners and residents.)
In and of itself, eliminating the Loop is not controversial. Note that there is no civic group called "Friends of the Loop." Most of the property is government-owned. A more walkable, vibrant city could make downtown ripe for further private development—housing, retail, office and restaurants—and thus generate more property tax revenue for the city and county.
However, at $12 million to $35 million, depending on the scope of the improvements, the plan will require political and public buy-in. The financial motivation behind these improvements, while understandable, is causing unease among those anxious about affordability downtown.
"Durham is known for all diversity in ages, races and gender," says Alice Sharpe, who lives and works downtown. We don't want to lose that."
David Godschalk was in Durham for the birth of the Loop in the 1950s and '60s. And he plans to be here for the death of it.
Fifty years ago, downtowns tried to mimic the convenience of suburban shopping centers, Godschalk, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina's Department of City and Regional Planning, says, "because downtowns were losing people to the malls."
In fact, driving the Loop feels a lot like circling the parking lot at The Streets at Southpoint—which is to say, aggravating. Ironically, malls like Southpoint are now trying to emulate downtowns of yore, building grids of small streets and stores close to the sidewalks.
The plan to turn the Loop two-way and square it off to form a grid has been in the works for more than a decade. The idea was floated in the 2000 and 2008 Downtown Master Plans and the 2010 Retail Study. And at a recent Downtown Durham Inc workshop to update the 2015 master plan, more than 200 citizens attended, many of them to say that walkability and connectivity between neighborhoods is key to a vibrant city—as well as "grit" and "authenticity."
Matt Gladdek, DDI's director of government affairs, lives in Cleveland-Holloway, immediately northeast of downtown. "I have to cross the Loop and it's a terrible experience," he says.
The plan calls for buildings of varying heights to be constructed primarily on city- and county-owned parking lots, which could be sold to developers. The developers and perhaps local government would build new parking garages. But instead of fortresses (Exhibit A, the Durham City Centre), these structures would be wrapped with "liner shops" to give the area more of a Main Street feel.
Nocek says the city, which owns the property, could expand the space to include a plaza and street-level restaurant, to help offset the cost and "add another revenue stream. We could get life on this street."
More than half of the theater's audience comes from Wake County, Nocek says, "and there is no character leading up to the theater. If that's how they get here, they probably don't know how much Durham has changed. We've got a world-class market around us but the Loop is off-putting."
The wall, which hides the Convention Center's storage and loading docks, would be converted to storefronts. Storage would move beneath the new Convention Center Plaza.
An additional six projects are noted in the plan. Ramseur Street lots would have mixed-use development; City Hall Plaza would be redesigned. The SouthBank building would be demolished. It is owned by Austin Lawrence Partners, the same firm building the skyscraper at Main and Corcoran streets.
"From an urbanist perspective, the SouthBank building was a mistake from the day it was made," Gladdek says. "No one likes the SouthBank building."
This sounds grand—all that's missing is the jetpacks to shuttle us from place to place. But there is the matter of money. It would cost the city and county an estimated $12 million to do the basic improvements, and then the developers would make their own site improvements. Cleveland & Church, not unexpectedly, is pushing for a $35 million version, in which local government would issue bonds to cover the whole enchilada.
"Financing on-site improvements in developments is difficult enough," the proposal reads. "Asking developers to finance off-site improvements makes their job tougher."
That plea is unlikely to garner much sympathy from the city, county and public. (Cue violins.)
"Knowing the budget constraints of the city, only the $12 million plan has traction," Gladdek says.
There is talk of forming a tax-increment financing district, known as a TIF, or more likely, a variant called a synthetic TIF. The latter was used to help finance some improvements for the American Tobacco Campus.
The idea behind both versions is that the property value is assessed before the improvements, and then it is estimated after them. A portion of the increase goes to pay off bonds, in the case of a TIF, or other financing, such as low-interest bank loans, in the synthetic version.
"It would be somewhat complex because of the city- and county-owned property," says Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. "The city would not only change the Loop, but the use of the land they own. There are a lot of interconnected parts. I can see it happening—it would enhance downtown—but we would need to identify one or more major developers. But it's doable."
With this level of investment, it's difficult to envision a downtown with room for the small business owner. It appears that without some government intervention the market forces will dominate, with the hope (or delusion) that supply and demand will keep prices in line.
"There are a number of property owners who care about keeping artists downtown," Gladdek says. "But put yourself in the shoes of property owners, who after 30 years, want to make money off your land. How is that not your right?"
Marcia McNally, a downtown resident and property owner is among those who while supporting the Loop conversion, is nonetheless concerned about the unintended consequences of it. Plans for the Loop, she says, must include publicly owned parking lots and codes that ensure affordable housing and business rents—to make the city center less vulnerable to the whims of market forces..
A local developer should do the project "Durham-style," McNally says. "No cookie-cutter live-work-play cluster compounds.
"The City cannot give away this tremendous opportunity. We all must do our part to be sure we get this next chapter right."